The insignificant organisms that run the world

These seemingly insignificant, poorly understood organisms are essential to the survival of the ecosystems we depend on, yet there is little public interest or grant money to study these organisms. Since our understanding of these vital organisms is minimal, we may fail to detect the serious harm our actions can have on them. Combine this lack of knowledge with a typical lag in ecosystem response and many vital ecosystems could be at risk.

Creepy-crawlies – we depend on them but they get ignored, reports Tim Elliott.

Humans tend to think of themselves as the planet’s predominant life form, yet there is another altogether more spineless creature without which our existence would be impossible – invertebrates.

“Invertebrates are an incredibly important class of animal,” says John Gollan, an ecologist at the Australian Museum. “But they hardly ever get the attention they deserve.”

Invertebrates – including snails, worms, bees, ants and spiders – are a key part of the ecosystem, particularly the food chain, where they comprise a large part of the diet of higher-order organisms. “Get rid of invertebrates and you wouldn’t have fish and birds,” Gollan says. “They also pollinate plants, facilitating agriculture, and aid in decomposition, with things like dung beetles breaking down animal waste, fecal matter and corpses. Consequently, they’re a key part of biodiversity.”

As the renowned entomologist E.O.Wilson observed, invertebrates are “the little things that run the world”.

Yet comparatively little is known about them: of an estimated 11 million species of invertebrate, only 1 million have ever been formally identified. “Their size makes them time-consuming and expensive to study, because you need taxonomic expertise,” Gollan says.

What is not mentioned in this article is the importance of even ‘lesser’ organisms such as fungi, algae and bacteria, they to play vital roles in many ecosystems and are even less understood than invertebrates.

There are significant gaps in our knowledge about how the ecosystems we depend on function; we should be working as fast as possible to close those gaps. Large charismatic animals don’t deserve all the attention.

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